Embassy of Heaven

Christians and the Law-Courts

 

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Early Christians did not go to law

By reconstructing in one's imagination the position of the first Christians among the heathen, one can easily understand that the Christians, who were persecuted in man's law-courts, could not prohibit law-courts. Only incidentally could they allude to that evil, condemning its foundations, as they did.

I consulted the Fathers of the Church of the first centuries, and saw that they always define the difference between their teaching and that of all others by the fact that they never put compulsion on anyone in any way and never went to law with anyone (see Athenagoras and Origen), did not execute, but only endured the torments to which they were condemned by man's courts. All the martyrs, by their deeds, made the same profession. I saw that all the Christians till the time of Constantine regarded the law-courts not otherwise than as an evil which had to be patiently endured, and that the thought could never enter the head of any Christian of those days that Christians could take part in prosecutions. I saw that the words of Christ,' Judge not that ye be not judged,' were understood by his first disciples as I now understand them in their direct meaning: 'Do not prosecute in the courts, and do not participate in them.'

Everything indubitably confirmed my conviction that the words 'Judge not and condemn not' mean, do not judge in the courts; yet the explanation that it means do not malign your neighbor is so generally accepted, and so boldly and confidently do the courts flourish in all Christian countries, supported even by the Church, that I long doubted the correctness of my interpretation. If everybody could explain the matter in this way and organize Christian courts, then probably they had some ground for so doing and there is something I do not understand, said I to myself. There must be grounds on which the words are understood to mean 'to malign,' and there must be grounds for instituting Christian courts.

And I examined the explanations of the ecclesiastical theologians. In all these interpretations, from the fifth century onward, I found that the words were taken in the sense of condemnation of one's neighbor, that is, maligning. And as the words are taken only to mean condemning one's neighbor in words, the question arises - how can one refrain from condemning? Evil must be condemned! Therefore all the interpretations revolve round the question, what one may and what one may not condemn. It is said (St. Chrysostom and Theophilus) that for the servants of the Church it must not be understood as a prohibition to judge, for the Apostles themselves judged. It is said that probably Christ referred to the Jews who condemned their neighbors for small sins and themselves committed great ones.

But nowhere is a word said of the institution of courts of law and of the relation in which the courts stand to this condemnation of judging. Does Christ forbid them or allow them?

To that particular question no reply is given, as though it were quite obvious that as soon as a Christian occupied a judge's seat, he might not merely condemn his neighbor, but have him executed.

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